Counterbalance No. 122: Gram Parsons' 'Grievous Angel'

A country-rock milestone is the 122nd most acclaimed album of all time. Come out on your porch or we’ll step into your parlor and we’ll tell you how it all went down.

Gram Parsons

Grievous Angel

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 1974-01
UK Release Date: 1974-01

Klinger: Gram Parsons. There are few words in the English language that conjure up as much critical saliva as those two right there. Gram Parsons. From a critic's perspective, this was a guy who had it all: the perfect backstory, the right look, the impeccable taste, the ability to blend in easily with rock royalty, and of course the tragic demise at a crucial juncture in his career. And as we see here on Grievous Angel, his first appearance on the Great List, he had an astonishing talent for songwriting and interpretation.

Of course, if you're stumbling across Grievous Angel based mainly on its critical reputation, you might well be taken aback by the high levels of honky-tonkery found here. Parsons was steeped in country traditions like one of those jars of tea people leave out in their backyard all day. (Pro-tip: those jars are not for passers-by to wet their whistles. Trust me.) And I could see where that might be daunting. So Mendelsohn, as someone whose belt buckle is just regular sized, how did you enjoy Parsons' final burst of Cosmic American Music?

Mendelsohn: If I ever catch you putting your lips on my sun tea jar ever again, you will be getting a backside of rock salt courtesy of my shotgun. Just ask for a glass. We can sit on the veranda and sip sweet (green) tea while we enjoy the dulcet strains of Parsons' Cosmic American Music...

Really? Cosmic American Music? Was this dude on drugs or something? I'm just kidding, of course he was. Seriously though—Cosmic American Music? I will never, ever truly understand the ’60s. Or in this case, the early ’70s.

I honestly don't know where I stand on this record. I've been alternately blown away, honest to God, just blown away by a record that sounds like it completely stepped out of place and time and then the song changes and I find myself wondering what it was that made that song seem so special in the first place. And then I think about Parsons' backstory—which, by the way, I find completely engrossing, so much so that his myth might just equal his music in its audacity alone and this is coming from the guy who thinks the music should always trump the myth. But Parsons takes it to an entirely different level.

This dude got kicked out of the Rolling Stones' house for doing too many drugs. The Rolling Stones kicked Gram Parsons out of their house because he was the one doing too many drugs. The Rolling Stones were recording Exile on Main Street in a big house in France with a bunch of people who were all doing drugs with the Rolling Stones and the person they kick out of the house is Parsons. I know, I'm repeating myself, but that fact alone boggles my mind.

Klinger: We may never know the exact circumstances behind Parsons' sudden departure from the Stones' inner circle, but I suspect that part of it was Mick getting jealous of Gram and Keith getting all BFF with each other. Regardless, the Parsons saga is full of fascinating twists and turns—from his wealthy, alcoholic, doomed family to his stint at Harvard to his attempts to force a bit of country traditionalism into the hippie dream, and then onward to his own fatal overdose—and it’s that story that makes him way more than just Keith Richards' drug buddy.

It's interesting—Grievous Angel is actually something of a hodgepodge of leftover tracks ("Ooh Las Vegas"), covers ("I Can't Dance"), and retakes of earlier Parsons compositions ("Hickory Wind", "$1000 Wedding"), and yet it's evidently the more iconic of his two solo albums. That could be down to the fact that the album was released posthumously, generating even more reverence than it might have normally received. But the true believer in me wants to believe it's because there are a couple of bona fide classics there amid his newly written songs. "Return of the Grievous Angel" does just the right amount of self-mythologizing to make Parsons seem like his place in the pantheon had always been assured.

"In My Hour of Darkness", meanwhile, is pretty close to being one of those songs that seems like it has always been with us, the kind where it's hard to imagine that a regular person just sat down and wrote it one day. You could have told me that it was written by some Presbyterian minister in the 1880s, and I might have been willing to go along with you (the chorus, anyway).

Mendelsohn: Irrespective of the real reason the Rolling Stones gave him the boot, claiming it was because of his prodigious drug use is sort of telling. And it wasn't just drugs that Parsons had trouble with, there was also the women, notably his wife Gretchen and her unease with Parsons' professional relationship with Emmylou Harris. And without Harris pushing Parsons and his band to rehearse and record, Grievous Angel might never have seen the light of day. The record was only released after Gretchen rearranged the track list, pushing "In My Hour of Darkness", a song Harris helped to write, to the back of the album and picked new cover artwork that didn't include Harris in order to minimize her official presence on the record.

Klinger: You know, in all fairness to Gretchen Parsons, I think I'd be deeply disturbed if I had to listen to my spouse sing songs like "Hearts on Fire" or "Love Hurts" with all of the empathy and compassion that Parsons and Harris are showing one another here. If Hollywood were to make a Gram Parsons biopic (which seriously, what's keeping them?), Emmylou would be portrayed as (this being Hollywood) an almost caricatured angel representing the forces of goodness and light, the one person who could keep Gram on the rails and fulfill his legacy.

Mendelsohn: So let's recap. In Parsons we have a troubled musician who has a tempestuous relationship with drugs and women and enjoys a bit of self-mythologizing. This sounds awfully familiar. Right around the time Parsons was trying to make everyone in the rock world take country music seriously, there was another singer trying to make the rock world take his poetry seriously—one Jim Morrison of the Doors. We talked about the Doors very early on our excursion into the Great List but Morrison never held the critical cachet that Parsons seems to effortlessly exude in certain circles. I find it interesting that these two men had similar lives and came to similar ends at almost the exact same time but inhabit nearly opposite ends of the same rock 'n' roll spectrum. As far a self-mythologizing goes, Morrison actively courted the myth and wound up the idol of teenage boys while Parsons merely hints at his myth in his music with lines like "the music he had in him a very few possessed".

As I start to unpack the backstory further, the untouchable sheen of Parsons’ talents starts to tarnish and I'm left wondering if the critical appeal of Grievous Angel is based on how the critics wanted to view Parsons, as opposed to the real artist he was. Would this record still be as loved if Parsons wasn't so completely self-destructive? If this album had been billed as joint project between Parsons and Harris as originally intended would we be having this conversation?

Klinger: Well, I'm not really sure why you're dragging that lunkhead Jim Morrison into this, but I'll see if I can address this. Parsons wasn't writing about himself in "In My Hour of Darkness" (the verse you're referring to was most likely about former Byrds compatriot Clarence White), but it is easy to see how that imagery came to represent Parsons after Grievous Angel was released posthumously. But Parsons achieves his cachet mainly due to something I mentioned earlier—his unimpeachable taste, which endowed him with a force of will that Morrison's narcissism can't match.

Parsons was originally tapped to add a bit of piano to the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but he ended up the de facto leader of the group during his brief tenure—more on all that this time next year. His depth and breadth of knowledge lent an air of authenticity to the Stones' rootsified efforts. Later, by using musicians like the astonishing James Burton and Ronnie Tutt (who split their time between Parsons and some guy named Elvis Presley), he was able to establish a certain credibility that would stand the test of time. As the paradigm shifted from psychedelia to roots music, Parsons reveals himself to be a transforming figure.

Mendelsohn: I think the Morrison/Parsons comparison is easy to make—for obvious reasons—but it also illustrates the many entry points into rock 'n' roll mythos. Parsons took the path less traveled, seeking to bring the divergent strains of rock 'n' roll and country together under the umbrella of Cosmic American Music. I guess in that respect he was wildly successfully, not wildly popular, mind you, as he failed to achieve any sort of real commercial success unit after his death. But as the old saying goes, you never know what you had until you lost it.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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